New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: klezmer music

Haunting Music From Happier Times

While the past year has seen a lot of artists desperately mining their archives for concert recordings in order to maintain some semblance of a performing career, violinist Meg Okura’s Live at the Stone album with her NPO Trio is not one of those releases. This 2016 concert was one of the last at the iconic venue’s original Alphabet City digs before it moved to the New School, only to be shuttered in the lockdown. This particular set – released a couple of years ago and still streaming at Bandcamp – is expansive, klezmer-centric, and despite the energetic interplay between Okura, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, is rather dark.

As the initial 38-minute improvisation – divided up into six separate sections here – gets underway, Okura and Pilc are at their most orchestral. The violinist plays through a series of effects including delay, loops and massive amounts of reverb. The pianist, for the most part, maintains a glittering High Romantic gravitas.

Pilc echoes Okura’s cascades as she runs them through reverb turned up to the point of slapback. Building a series of builds variations, she’s joined by Newsome, who takes centerstage achingly as Pilc and Okura rustle and rumble underneath.

About three minutes in, Okura introduces the stark, central 19th century klezmer theme, Mark Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetchik. Newsome searches longingly with his microtonal washes until Pilc and Okura bring a steady rhythm back, the piano taking over scurrying, pointillistic variations. Then the violin moves to the foreground, leading the music from plaintive and insistent to spare and starry. Newsome’s stark clarinet-like tone, especially in the most somber moment here, fits this music perfectly.

Somber chromatics come front and center and remain there the longest in the fourth segment. Newsome leads the group down into minimalism, Pilc raising the energy with his jackhammer pedalpoint, a bit of a klezmer reel and a brief minor-key ballad without words. Newsome drives the band to a chilling, shivery coda.

There are two other improvisations here. The first, Unkind Gestures, is based on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, is vastly more carefree and jauntily conversational, Pilc’s rumbles and basslines contrasting with Newsome’s keening, harmonically-laced duotones. Okura opens the almost nineteen-minute closing number, Yiddish Mama No Tsuki, with a sizzling klezmer solo, Pilc following with eerie belltones down to what sounds like an altered version of the old standard Mein Yiddishe Mama. Revelry and wry quotes interchange with airy acidity, disorienting clusters, a brooding Newsome solo and surreal blues from Okura and Pilc.

One quibble: not one but two tracks cut off right in the middle of gorgeously melismatic Newsome solos, a real faux pas. People who listen to this kind of music have long attention spans and don’t care how long a track is.

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.

In Memoriam: Jewlia Eisenberg

Everything Jewlia Eisenberg did was big. The way she flashed that knowing smile. That hearty laugh. Her feisty sense of humor and lust for life. Her travels, which took her all over the globe in search of what would become an encyclopedic knowledge of music from across the Jewish diaspora.

Her generosity. She wore her heritage proudly, right down to how she spelled her name. But she didn’t just sit on that vast body of scholarship, or her commitment to social justice. As she saw it, it was only obvious that she should share her passion for, say, Bosnian protest songs or Jewish lesbian ballads from across the centuries, with any random audience who might be where she was.

As the leader of carnivalesque Eastern European folk-punk band Charming Hostess and innumerable other projects, she always found the universality in whatever music she was singing. She was a klezmer maven and also a soul mama, a cinephile, a theatre person and a devotee of dance, and did soundtracks for all of those media. Her repertoire ranged from ancient, witchy Babylonian themes to hip-hop-inspired theatrics and in the end, African-American gospel and blues in her Book of J project with guitar wizard Jeremiah Lockwood. Her career was over far too soon: we lost her this past March 11. Ostensibly, she succumbed to a rare immune disorder: it’s not known if she was given one of the needles of death, but that seems unlikely, considering how smart she was.

She leaves behind considerable scholarly work and an eclectically entertaining discography, both as a bandleader and solo artist. She sang at big auditoriums around the world, and also held down a number of Barbes residencies. She loved making field recordings. Fortuitously, this blog’s archive includes one of Eisenberg singing with Book of J at Barbes in mid-July 2018, a show that got an enthusiastic thumbs-up at the time. Eisenberg would no doubt approve of the idea, if not that the tape still needs to be properly catalogued: she was always as much a consummate pro as bon vivant. Condolences to all who had the good fortune to know her, work with her or witness her charismatic antics onstage.

An Edgy Playlist for a Spring Day…and a Great Upcoming Webcast

Spring is here and artists are starting to release more and more singles. Prediction: this year we’re going to see more and more music that was recorded in defiance of the lockdown. For your listening pleasure, here’s a self-guided playlist that’s just a small capsule of some of the very good things bubbling up from under the radar:

Molly Burman‘s Fool Me With Flattery has a noirish 60s rock edge with tropicalia tinges. Great jangly guitar!

Just when you think Paper Citizen‘s Scratching the Surface is totally no wave/skronky retro early 80s dystopia, the big catchy crunchy chorus kicks in. The lyrical message is allusive but spot on: let’s get off the screen before it gets us.

Shannon Clark & the Sugar‘s Let It Ride is not a cover of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit but a slow-burning minor key blues original. Remember the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks? This is probably on the jukebox there

Blood Lemon‘s Black-Capped Cry oozes through slow, doomy postmetal minimalism. They’re an Idaho band, and Idaho is a free state, so chances are they recorded this legally!

In elegant, stately Hebrew, singer Shifra Levy sings If I Found Grace over pianist/composer Yerachmiel’s neoromantic crescendos. It’s a Purim piano power ballad. Purim is sort of the Jewish Halloween: it’s not macabre, but all the cool kids dress up in costume and go to parties. Purim is over and Passover is looming, but give it a spin anyway

And speaking of awesome Jewish music, iconic klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals is playing a webcast live from Rockland, New York this March 13 at 7 PM. She chooses her spots for when she does these broadcasts, always gives you plenty of thrills and chills but just as much poignancy and an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material.

Soprano Meets Bass Reinvent Sephardic Treasures with Passion and Elegance

The new Sephardic Treasures album by the Soprano Meets Bass project – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous and expansive take on a very old idea. Classical ensembles have been appropriating ancient Jewish themes for centuries; this album is more eclectic, drawing on tango, flamenco and jazz as well. In general, the music is sleeker than you would expect from a klezmer or tango band playing this material. For those of us who don’t speak Ladino, singer Ana María Ruimonte gives the material much more clarity than most operatically-trained vocalists typically deliver. And she maintains power and edge through many of the melodies’ challenging, rapidfire melismas and ornaments.

This is a long, rewarding album: fifteen songs. Most of them are sad; kings typically do not fare well in them. Minor keys are everywhere, along with the occasional slashing Middle Eastern mode. Bandleader/bassist Alan Lewine puts on a master class in terse, purposeful solos, notably a triumphantly churning facsimile of flamenco guitar playing in a Romany-flavored anthem toward the end of the record.

Some of the songs have a full rhythm section, with Shai Wetzer on drums; others feature lighter percussion by Víctor Monge. Pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, flutist Hadar Noiber,  Spanish guitarist Julián Vaquero and violinist Alicia Svigals all punch in purposefully, often with echoes of flamenco or the Balkans, when the vocals drop out, or in response to Ruimonte’s lyrical phrasing. She sings in character, whethe plaintive, pensive – or simply unable to keep a straight face, in a goofy nursery rhyme about a cat. That’s the album’s lone moment of comic relief.

In a handful of songs, she reaches for the rafters with arioso power, especially in a dancing, subtly shifting North African-influenced ballad. There are quieter songs and laments here as well, including one with a spare, hypnotic, almost Indian atmosphere, an almost completely rubato tableau, and a welcome departure into flamenco jazz. What a feast for fans of flamenco, klezmer and classical music alike

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

Klezmer-Ish Put a Playful, Eclectic Spin on Gorgeous Old Jewish Melodies

There are plenty of bands who put a darkly improvisational spin on old Jewish folk songs, but Klezmer-ish are different. Take the version of the popular Klezmer Freilach, which opens their new album Dusty Road, streaming at Spotify. There isn’t just romping clarinet – that’s Thomas Verity on bass clarinet. There’s also cello, and bouzouki, and hints of Romany jazz, and a nebulous, suspenseful interlude midway through. Among other klezmer groups, Mames Babegenush are the obvious comparison, but Klezmer-ish are more lavishly textured.

The group strut in unison through the album’s second number, Padelasol Fetalor: what a commitment to staccato. They build an elegant, moody web of counterpoint in Volver, Marcel Becker’s bass anchoring the clarinet, Rob Shepley’s  imploring violin and Concettina Del Vecchio’s accordion weaving a veil and then piercing it.

September Sun comes across as a more hi-de-ho take on Django Reinhardt, with a spare, jaunty bass-and-guitar conversation. Becker’s wistfully bowed bass solo opens Kicho, eventually pairing up with lush, majestic accordion. A broodingly crescendoing bass-carinet-and- bass duet opens another popular standard, Hershel, kicking off a catchy minor-key romp by the whole band and then a ridiculous cartoon-horse interlude.

Spare bass clarinet and guitar pair off in Amud Ha’Esch, then pensively sweeping strings take over. I’m Confessin’ isn’t a klezmer tune, but this slowly simmering swing arrangement fits the instrumentation well. Django Reinhardt’s  Blue Drag works even better in this context, Shepley firing off the album’s most lusciously spiky guitar solo.

With its steady, ambling groove and unexpectedly psychedelic guitar, Give Me a Lift to Tzfat is the most chromatically tasty track on the record. The group pair a searchingly clarinet-fueled doina with a similarly moody, bluesy sher and close with the title cut, underscoring the fact that they excel the most with instrumentals.

A Broodingly Gorgeous New Album From Klezmer Innovators Shtreiml

Shtreiml have been taking the klezmer tradition to unexpected and interesting new places for a long time. Their latest album Har Meron is just out and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a suite of sorts, a dynamic, often pensive theme and variations that draws on many styles from across the Jewish diaspora, jazz, Balkan and latin music.

Frontman Jason Rosenblatt builds minor-key suspense and majesty at the piano in the overture, trombonist Rachel Lemisch’s vivid, brooding resonance over Josh Fink’s bass and Thierry Arsenault’s flurrrying drums. Trumpeter Alexis French and saxophonist Tevet Sela take lyrical turns out in front of the band in the rather stern, pulsing variation that follows

Rosenblatt breaks out his signature instrument (shtreiml is the Yiddish word for harmonica) in the understatedly stark nigun that follows, percussionist Bertil Schulrabe providing a slinky Middle Eastern-tinged undercurrent. Then they pick up the pace with a lively, southern Balkan-flavored linedance tune, a hazy, hypnotic bridge at the center.

Rosenblatt keeps that misty, bucolic ambience going in the next number as the horns play an elegant, ancient-sounding theme spiced with doublestops. Lemisch leads the group with a melismatic grace through a variation on the title theme, Rosenblatt’s piano adding eerie glitter, up to a rapturous intertwine between the horns. Then Sela takes a turn out front as the group strut and swing with an allusively chromatic, Serbian tinge.

There’s barely suppressed joy in the pulsing horn piece afterward. Rosenblatt’s gracefully ornamented harmonica lines sail over the muted, slinky groove that follows. The album’s most epic track is also its most enigmatic and lithely jazz-oriented, Sela taking the album’s most intricately energetic solo.

They wind up the record with a trickily rhythmic, cleverly voiced dance, the sax finallly reaching for the rafters, and a  brisk, brassy sirba to close on a high note. It’s an apt coda for an album marked by reserve and thoughtful, dusky tunesmithing rather than the unleashed wildness of so many klezmer party bands.

Niv Ashkenazi’s Lyrical Debut Album Celebrates Obscure Composers Imperiled or Murdered During the Holocaust

On a musical level alone, Niv Ashkenazi’s debut album Violins of Hope with pianist Matthew Graybil – streaming at Spotify – is a work of extraordinary beauty that reflects the vast scope of Jewish music throughout history. The backstory is even more inspiring. On one hand, this is a collection of both virtually unknown and relatively obscure repertoire by Jewish composers who were either driven from their homes or murdered during the Holocaust, along with a couple of famous pieces from the classical and film music canons.

Ashkenazi’s axe is one of dozens of violins played by Jews during the Holocaust, rescued by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein and detailed in James A. Grymes’ book, which shares its title with this album. This particular European model, crafted sometime between 1900 and 1929, has a remarkably warm tone and a Star of David inlay in mother of pearl on the body. It may have been played in the death camps, or one of the ghettos: no one knows for sure. The purpose of the project, and this album, is to return both the music and these instruments to their rightful place in our culture.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade, a song without words, is the cellist-composer’s only surviving work. Graybil’s lightly acerbic staccato and Ashkenazi’s aching lyricism echo both Schubert and Rachmaninoff. Dauber – son of jazz violinist Dolf Dauber – wrote it while imprisoned at Terezin. He died in captivity at Dachau in 1945.

Ernest Bloch’s 1923 Nigun features Ashkenazi soaring, spiraling and trilling against a drone over Graybil’s alternately hypnotic and rippling chromatics, a theme and variations on a gorgeous, dramatic medieval cantorial melody. John Williams well-known, klezmer-inspired Theme from Schindler’s List gets apt contrast between Graybil’s austere piano and Ashkenazi’s wounded, almost imploring intensity.

Julius Chajes’ 1939 piece The Chassid slowly rises to a triumphant strut in the Middle Easter-tinged freygish mode, the composer obviously inspired by the short time he spent in exile in the Holy Land before settling in Detroit.

Rising from hypnotic minimalism to a vigorous, neoromantic peak, contemporary composer Sharon Farber’s Bestemming: Triumph celebrates Dutch Resistance hero Curt Lowens, who saved not only scores of Jews but also a pair of downed American airmen during the war. The composer joins Graybil at the keys; Tony Campisi speaks Lowens’ own words, watching the survivors make their escape.

Szymon Laks’ resolute spirit shines through in his 1935 work Trois Pièces de Concert. The composer and Holocaust hero saved several of his fellow musicians from death at Auschwitz, survived the death camp and continued his career after he was liberated. Here the duo shift from a carefree baroque dance to unexpectedly marionettish riffage, a balmy barcarolle, and a lively conclusion which comes across as an update on Corelli.

The Ukrainian-born George Perlman taught violin in Chicago until his death at 103. His 1929 Dance of the Rebbitzen is a beautifully lilting miniature in freygish mode. As its title implies, pioneering Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s tenderly waltzing 1945 Berceuse Sfaradite looks back to Sephardic traditions.

The well-known classical number here is Kaddish, from Ravel’s Deux Melodies Hebraïques, in a terse, crystalline 1924 arrangement by Lucien Garban. The duo conclude the album with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words, a partita from 1952. They follow a steady upward trajectory through the brooding opening pavane, to a similarly wary Ballad and conclude with a Sephardic Melody that echoes the composer’s early immersion in European neoromanticism.

New Takes on Rare, Otherworldly Klezmer Recordings to Ease Your Lockdown Pain

Among the glut of musical webcasts that have sprung up since the beginning of the lockdown, one of the most fascinating and entertaining ones is klezmer violinist Ilana Cravitz‘s Nign a Day project, streaming daily at her webpage. She’s assembled an allstar team of string players from around the world, each playing a half-hour solo program of lively dances and party music from the legendary Moishe Beregovski collection. Many of the artists involved offer insights into the nuts and bolts of these stark, ancient songs as well as the occasional archival clip.

Beregovski was a Russian counterpart to Alan Lomax. Beginning before World War I and continuing until about 1950, Beregovski assembled a vast collection of Jewish folk tunes from across what was then the Soviet Union. Tragically, that heroic preservation work essentially cost him his life. Stalin found out about him and had him imprisoned in the gulag in 1951. In 1956, his health broken, Beregovski was released; he died in obscurity five years later.

His collection of wax cylinder recordings was rediscovered in Kiev after the fall of the Soviet Union and has since become a source of global fascination. Cravitz’s project is at about the halfway point now; New York’s Zoe Aqua and Deborah Strauss are featured on May 14 and 15, respectively. The performances are archived at Cravitz’s youtube channel. Thanks to May 10 guest Alicia Svigals for the heads-up about this.